THE LAST UNIVERSALI8T
his colleagues: 'The reply came like an arrow'.
At the end of this year he passed first into the ficole Poly-
technique. Several legends of his unique examination survive.
One tells how a certain examiner, forewarned that young Poin-
car6 was a mathematical genius, suspended the examination for
three-quarters of an hour in order to devise 'a "nice" question' -
a refined torture. But Poincare got the better of fri™ and the
inquisitor 'congratulated the examinee warmly, telling hlfn he
had won the highest grade*. Poincare's experiences with his
tormentors would seem to indicate that French mathematical
examiners have learned something since they ruined Galois and
came within an ace of doing the like by Hermite.
At the Polytechnique Poineare" was distinguished for his
brilliance in mathematics, his superb incompetence in all
physical exercises, including gymnastics and military drill, and
his utter inability to make drawings that resembled anything in
heaven or earth. The last was more than a joke; his score of zero
in the entrance examination in drawing had almost kept Mm
out of the schooL This had greatly embarrassed his examiners:
*... a zero is eliminatory. In everything else [but drawing] he is
absolutely without an equal. If he is admitted, it will be as
first; but can he be admitted?' As Poincare was admitted the
good examiners probably put a decimal point before the zero
and placed a 1 after it.
In spite of his ineptitude for physical exercises Poincare' was
extremely popular with his classmates. At the end of the year
they organized a public exhibition of his artistic masterpieces,
carefully labelling them in Greek, *this is a horse*, and so on -
not always accurately. But Poincare's inability to draw also
had its serious side when he came to geometry, and he lost first
place, passing out of the school second in rank.
On leaving the Polytechnique in 1875 at the age of twenty-
one Poincare entered the School of Mines with the intention of
becoming an engineer. His technical studies, although faithfully
carried out, left him some leisure to do mathematics, and he
showed what was in him by attacking a general problem in
differential equations. Three years later he presented a thesis,
on the same subject, but concerning a more difficult and yet